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Refuge honored for doing good for the land

The Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, which focuses on habitat management and conservation, had the distinction of being honored for that work by a Ward County agency in November.

12/26/12 (Wed)

Refuge recognized for conservation efforts . . . Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge
manager Chad Zorn says the 2012 Ward County Soil Conservation District
Achievement  award reflects the successful efforts and dedication of past
refuge managers, as well as former and current staff, to improve wildlife habitat.


By Caroline Downs

The Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, which focuses on habitat management and conservation, had the distinction of being honored for that work by a Ward County agency in November.

The Ward County Soil Conservation District usually names an individual landowner or family as the winner of its annual Achievement Award, but the 2012 recognition went to the Des Lacs NWR because of soil conservation challenges resulting from extreme conditions the previous year.

“Our board looks at area farmers and different entities and what they’re doing,” said Ward County SCD district manager Ty Hanson. “They chose the refuge because they’re doing good for the land, and because of the outreach taking place there.”

“We always look for somebody who is working to enhance the conservation and environment of Ward County,” said Hank Bodmer of Kenmare, who has served on the Ward County SCD board for the past 18 years. “The refuge had a real mess on their hands with all the rain and problems with the soil in 2011. A large area of the refuge was affected, and they had to put it back in a difficult environment.”

Restoring the hillsides
Bodmer was referring to the hillside sloughing that occurred in May 2011 along the west side of the refuge, following an exceptionally heavy spring runoff and record amounts of rainfall.

Unfortunately, some of the hillsides that slumped were adjacent to or below the railroad tracks maintained by Canadian Pacific Railway.

Railroad officials reacted quickly to repair their line, which resulted in further damage to the landscape and the Boat Dock Road when heavy equipment was driven to the sites. At the time, the Des Lacs NWR was between managers, with former manager Dave Bolin already moved to a position in Alaska. Current manager Chad Zorn arrived in late May to see eroded and rutted slopes where mixed grasses and forbs should have been growing.

In the meantime, the Des Lacs River was overflowing the refuge’s water control structures, and staff members, especially Andy Jewett, were doing their best to reduce downstream flooding.

Zorn remembers his first days at the Des Lacs refuge with the immediate problems to tackle before he could organize his new office. “I remember needing to use four-wheel drive in my pickup because the Boat Dock Road was so torn up,” he said. “The scope of how much area was disturbed and how much needed to be done was overwhelming, and we’re still working on small parts of it.”

He praised his co-workers for their dedication and cooperation through that period. “The refuge has the sort of core staff here that no matter what someone’s title is, they pitch in and help,” he said. “That’s a key to this refuge and what we do.”

He cited Jewett for his efforts with water control that spring and summer, as well as consistent communication with the Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employees.

Zorn also praised maintenance engineer Dave Gins. “He spent countless hours, above and beyond his usual load, operating equipment and coordinating with Harris Construction,” Zorn said.

According to Zorn, the refuge staff worked with Harris Construction and CP Railway through the summer and fall of 2011 to repair the hillsides and rehabilitate the vegetation. During that period, the Boat Dock Road was closed to the public and repaired, which was controversial at the time.

“Now, I hear comments from people in the community about how the road is much improved,” said Zorn, referring to the wider and re-graveled road as the silver lining among all the problems. “We have a much better product now because of it.”

He described the coordination and communication with CP Railway as an ongoing process, with some vegetation rehabilitation work still to be done. “We are a refuge with two railroads running through it, and that takes work,” he said. “When we have another wet year, it’s going to be a question of what’s the next new spot that needs to be fixed. We’re working together with the railroad to make sure there isn’t a derailment, which could lead to environmental problems.”

Outreach and education
make a difference
Bodmer said the Ward County SCD board also noticed the impact of the outreach and education efforts by the Des Lacs refuge. “We know they’re one of the sponsors for the Eco-Ed Days and the Envirothon,” he said.

Zorn credited former travel special and education and outreach coordinator Jennifer Jewett with improving the refuge’s outreach to area residents and students through various programs she offered or promoted. “She definitely made a difference here for the community, the county and the refuge,” he said. “Her passion, her drive and her commitment are a big reason this award came to the refuge.”

He continued, “Environmental education is a priority of the refuge, especially the education of youth as they are the conservationists of the future.”

The refuge held its annual Haunted Hayride program in October and participated in the annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count last week. On January 9th, refuge staff and volunteers will host a group of Kenmare students for the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird County 4 Kids program. “We plan to continue with those outreach and education opportunities,” said Zorn.

A refuge to be proud of
Zorn, his wife Jennifer and their two sons attended the awards banquet in Bismarck, held November 19th during the annual convention of the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts. “The refuge was recognized at the banquet with the rest of the families chosen from other soil conservation districts,” said Zorn. “We appreciated that.”

He also appreciated meeting the Ward County SCD board members, and he plans to continue building the relationship between the refuge and the soil conservation district. “Our goals are the same,” he said. “We just have different ways of achieving them. I’d like to find out more about what we can do to work in partnership with them and their programs.”

Ward County SCD Board members include Harlan Lee, Gail Yuly, Don Roen, Greg Simonson and Pat Zeltinger, who was elected in November to replace outgoing board member Hank Bodmer.

Zorn accepted the Ward County SCD Achievement Award on behalf of the entire staff. “This isn’t me or my doing,” he said about the award. “This is about the refuge staff. This was all put in motion before I was here. This is also a recognition of past managers and past staff who have worked hard at managing the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge and improving wildlife habitat so the citizens of Ward County have a refuge they can be proud of.”

Aerial view . . . The award photo and certificate are
displayed at the Des Lacs NWR Visitors Center.